How to build your child's independence

Children walking home from school
Do you feel like you’re constantly nagging your child to get things done? Helping them develop their independent streak could help to break the trap.
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Independence is a vital skill for your primary school child to develop – but it’s not always an easy process. Many of us feel that our children are unable to get anything done without a soundtrack of prompts and nagging, and it’s not necessarily something that improves as they get older.

There are many reasons why children can struggle with becoming more independent. ‘Sometimes it’s due to their developmental stage, as being independent and organised requires quite sophisticated thinking skills,’ explains parenting coach Jane Rogers. ‘Sometimes it’s because they live very much in the moment, and haven’t got the same agenda as adults. And sometimes it’s because parents’ expectations are too low or too high.’

Why kids' independence matters

As your child progresses through primary school, they’ll be expected to become increasingly independent and take charge of their own learning and organisation.

‘Going to secondary school puts a big focus on children’s independence and organisational skills,’ Jane explains. ‘They have to find their way around a much bigger site, become familiar with their timetable, get used to being with different teachers and in different classrooms, keep a record of their homework and remember what they need to take to school each day. Children who build good, age-appropriate independence skills will be in a better position to face the challenge of secondary school.’

But independence isn’t just important for upper KS2 kids: younger children benefit from having opportunities to do things for themselves too. ‘It’s empowering and good for self-esteem if they don’t always have to rely on adults for help,’ Jane explains. ‘It’s also an important part of development and makes parents’ lives easier.’

So how can you help your child to develop the independence they’ll need to thrive at primary school and beyond?

Set reasonable expectations

There’s a big difference between how independent you can expect your child to be at five, and what they can achieve at 11, so be realistic.

‘A child in Reception, for example, can begin to do things like get dressed and undressed independently, hang their school bag on their peg, and eat lunch themselves, possibly with adult support,’ says Jane. ‘But by the age of about eight, they should be capable of getting themselves ready for school, remembering any sports kit or letters that they need to take in, and knowing what homework they have to do and at least making a start on it independently, with just a little prompting. Don’t set your expectations too high, otherwise your child will feel under pressure, but don’t set them too low, either: give them the chance to do things you think they’re capable of.’

Give them some household responsibilities 

Letting your child take charge of a few small household tasks is a good way to build independence. For example, you could make it their duty to lay the table for breakfast and put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket.

Make sure their siblings have similar age-appropriate tasks to avoid accusations of unfairness, and be prepared to remind them lots initially, with the hope of these tasks eventually becoming routine. You could also link their chores to a reward, such as their weekly pocket money or their daily hour of screen time.

Make independence exciting

Independence can be a positive, and not something that’s always focused on schoolwork and chores. Depending on your child’s age, allowing them to do things like going to the corner shop alone or walking to school with a group of friends can show them that being independent reaps rewards.

Give them reminders

Even as adults, we rely on people to remind us when something needs doing, and children are no different. But to encourage their independence, give them reminders that make them think for themselves, rather than just telling them what they have to do. So instead of saying, ‘Don’t forget your maths homework is due in on Wednesday,’ prompt them to remember themselves, by saying, ‘What do you need to take to school on Wednesday?’

‘Have these chats on numerous occasions throughout the week to make the message sink in,’ suggests Jane.

Use a timetable

Timetables can be really helpful when you’re trying to build your child’s independence: if they have their daily or weekly routine written down (or drawn, for children who can't yet read) on paper or a wall planner they will learn to consult it rather than relying on you for prompts.

Make use of rewards

Rewards can go a long way towards reinforcing the independent behaviour that you want your child to master. ‘Keep reward charts simple, without too many different tasks: it might be as basic as, “I will get my schoolbag ready every day this week,”’ Jane advises. ‘Older children often respond well to earning a token in a jar for accomplishing tasks independently, saving up for a reward at the end of the week. This doesn't need to be something bought: it could be a movie night with popcorn, a trip to a cafe or baking a cake.’

Encourage note-taking

If your child struggles with independence and organisation, encourage them to write themselves notes about what they need to do. Most schools give children a homework diary, so remind your child to use this to write down any important school-related information: not just homework, but also messages to be passed on to you or notes of letters that you need to sign. If your child doesn’t have a homework diary, buy them a funky notebook to use instead.

Be consistent

Children often prefer to leave the job of organising themselves to adults. It can be tempting to step in and help if they’re making a meal of getting dressed or complaining that they can’t do their homework, but stay firm and make sure your child is, at the very least, attempting to do these and other tasks independently.

Depending on the circumstances, some children get a wake-up call if you let them face the consequences of their actions – for example, having to miss five minutes of break time because they forgot to put their homework in their bag might prompt them to be more proactive in future. But making them miss a school trip by deliberately not reminding them to hand in their permission form is probably a lesson too far!

Be positive about independence

Whenever you’re trying to teach your child a new skill, praise and positive feedback is essential. ‘But make sure the praise is meaningful and descriptive so your child knows exactly what you’re pleased with,’ Jane advises.

For example, if your child has remembered that they need their swimming kit for school, rather than just saying, ‘Well done,’ make it clear that you’re pleased that they’ve shown some initiative and independence: ‘I’m really proud of you for remembering to get your swimming things ready this morning.’ This will highlight the behaviour that you want them to repeat in the future, and – hopefully – lead to new habits being formed.